Alim Ozturk insists Hibs’ current status as a second-tier team won’t cause Hearts to underestimate them ahead of this Sunday’s Scottish Cup fifth-round showdown at Tynecastle.
The Jambos skipper got a close look at the Easter Road side when he was involved in four closely-contested derbies last season. Despite Hearts moving up to the Premiership this season, Ozturk has kept an eye on Hibs’ fortunes and has been impressed at the manner in which they have kept pace with a strong Rangers team in the Championship while also reaching the League Cup final at the expense of three Premiership sides.
The defender is of no mind to view his side as red-hot favourites for Sunday simply because they now operate in a higher division than Hibs. “Hibs beat St Johnstone in the League Cup last week, which says all you need to know about them,” Ozturk said. “They have a good team and are still in the race with Rangers. Even though we finished well ahead of them in the league, the games last season were very close between us. It was a draw on points because they beat us, we beat them and there were two draws. Derbies can always go different ways. Even if you’re 20 points ahead or in a different league, it can go either way.”
Ozturk relished last season’s duels with Hibs and earned hero status among the Hearts support as his stoppage-time equaliser from 40 yards out secured a 1-1 draw at Easter Road a year past October. He is champing at the bit ahead of the first meeting between the sides in ten months.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” he said. “I was excited as soon as the draw was made. We are playing in the Premiership and they are in the Championship, so you know the only chance of a derby this season is in the cup. The fans wanted this one as well, so it’s a very nice game for everybody. When the derby games are coming up, people always speak to you about it. I enjoyed the intensity of the games last season, they are different to any other games.”
Ozturk’s name will always be synonymous with the derby because of the aforementioned wonder goal. Although he’d love to be the star of the show once again, the captain would happily settle for any kind of Hearts victory.
“Everybody expects it now but it’s not that easy,” he laughed, when asked about his famous equaliser. “I don’t mind if we keep a clean sheet and we win with a goal from anybody, or even an own goal. I just want to win and that’s it.”
Sunday’s derby will be Hearts’ first match since a dramatic transfer deadline day altered the look of their squad. Ozturk was visiting family in his hometown of Alkmaar as news emerged that Abiola Dauda, John Souttar and Don Cowie were checking in and Osman Sow, Danny Swanson and Morgaro Gomis were heading out of Hearts. Jordan McGhee was also on the brink of departing for Middlesbrough, while Billy King also left the club on loan just a few days earlier.
“That’s football – it’s always full of surprises,” reflected Ozturk. “I was in Holland on Monday, but I was following it on social media. I was seeing ‘he’s gone, he’s gone, he’s coming in’, so it was a bit strange. I spoke briefly with Osman and I sent Morgaro a message. I am happy for them at finding new clubs. It’s nice to bring fresh faces into the squad, so we will just have to wait and see how they fit in.”
Sow’s departure is likely to be most keenly felt by Hearts. The striker is heading for China in a lucrative seven-figure move, although he may be given a Tynecastle swansong on Sunday. For the remainder of the season, however, it will be Gavin Reilly, Juanma Delgado and Dauda required to provide the cutting edge.
“Osman has been a really important player for us,” said Ozturk. “He’s strong, fast and technically very good. I wish him all the best when he goes to China. The other strikers will have to step up. I hope they can do it and I believe they can. Juanma has only been here for six months. When you first come here you have to adapt to Scottish football. It will come, though – he is a good player.”
On a personal level, Ozturk feels like he is getting back towards top form. The defender was plagued by injury problems throughout 2015 and was particularly badly afflicted by abdominal pain in the opening weeks of the season. Having returned from hernia surgery last month, Ozturk has been buoyed by his involvement in three consecutive clean sheets.
“I don’t feel the same pain in the groin area,” he said. “It gets stiff sometimes but that’s normal when you’ve had surgery. I don’t have anything like the pain I had at the start of the season. My form is a lot better now as well. You can see that in the last few games – I feel good.
“That was the most important thing for me because at the start of the season I couldn’t play at 100 per cent. We lost a few goals at the start of the season when I was struggling and the new guys were still settling in, but it’s been going really well in the last few games. I’m really happy with that.”
• Hearts captain Alim Ozturk is urging more supporters to join the Foundation of Hearts. The fans group has around 8000 monthly pledgers and their financial backing has helped the club recruit some high-calibre players over the last 18 months Anyone interested in pledging should visit www.foundationofhearts.org